The Restraining Grace of God

Then God said to him[Abimelech] in the dream, “Yes, I know you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her (Genesis 20:6)

Genesis Chapter 20 is part of the larger narratives recounting Abraham’s journey when he was called by God to leave his father’s house (Genesis 12). That call involved several journeys of which the Chapter before us is one. Verse 1 plots the narrative in the context of Abraham’s journey towards the promised land: “From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb…”

Sometimes when you read Scriptures, you have to ask questions about what you are reading. So in reading verse 1, I asked myself, where did Abraham journey from. The text clearly tells us he moved from a place. When you go back to two chapters, we can plot where Abraham was moving from. In Chapter 18, there is a narrative of the visitation of three men including two angels to Abraham. Commentators have noted this to be a theophany, a visible manifestation of God in a visible form. Again it has been noted it was a Christophany; that is an appearance of Christ in the Old Testament before his birth. That said, the most important thing here is to answer where Abraham journey from: and it is Mamre.

Now from Mamre, Abraham arrived at Gerar. And several things occurred at Gerar which will be our focus for this article. Abraham and Sarah lied about their relationship as husband and wife causing Abimelech to go for Sarah (v 2). Before Abimelech will do anything, God appeared to him (v.3). Note that the text is careful to point out to us that Abimelech had not yet touched Sarah (v.4). So God graciously restrained Abimelech from sinning against him. This brings us to our title “The Restraining Grace of God.”

What Is Restraining Grace?

Restraining grace is the grace of God that keeps us from sinning against God. And the text is clear, God kept Abimelech, a pagan king from sinning. Intriguingly, God said “It was I who kept you from sinning against me” withheld thee from sinning against me” Isn’t this rather a matter of Abimelech sinning against Abraham and Sarah? No, it is not. What this points us to is that, ultimately, all sin is against God. Every sin is a breaking of God’s law. The Westminster Catechism in Question 14 asks the question “What Is Sin?” And it answers:

Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

God’s Restraining Grace is again that grace that keeps us from becoming worse than we presently are. If left on our own, we will be worse than we are now. In our lifetime, we would have committed more heinous sins. Think through all the temptations you have fought. Think through all the sins you have kept yourself from. Imagine giving in to every illicit thought that creeps into your mind. The hymn Come Thou Fount of Every blessing, illustrates something about God’s Restraining Grace

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above

You didn’t give in to temptations not because you are disciplined and godly. It was all the grace of God at work in your life.  Does that discount and discredit our efforts towards godliness. No, it doesn’t. But even those efforts are all the grace of God at work in our life. Philippians 4:12 calls on us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Then it goes on to tell us in v.13 that it is God who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

In fact, the world will be an uninhabitable place if it were not for the Restraining Grace Of God. The wickedness we see now will be at a different level. Recently there was sad news about armed robbers attacking an ambulance carrying a pregnant woman, shot the driver dead, molested the nurse attending to the pregnant woman and took money from her MoMo. All these while the pregnant woman was in labour. Such sad events. Now, this is even a world restrained of evil we are living in. Imagine if left on our own to follow our every instinct. We will be more than animals. Let me share a quote with you from Jonathan Edwards on the subject of the Restraining Grace of God

If we have seen others do things that we never did; and if they have done worse than we, this is owing to restraining grace. If we have not done as bad as Pharaoh, it is owing to divine restraints. If we have not done as bad as Judas, or as the scribes and Pharisees, or as bad as Herod, or Simon Magus, it is because God has restrained our corruption. If we have ever heard or read of any that have done worse than we; if we have not gone the length in sinning, that the most wicked pirates or carnal persecutors have gone, this is owing to restraining grace.¹

These words point us to the Restraining Grace of God. We owe everything to God. Our salvation. Our sanctification. Our victories over sin. It is all a work of God’s grace.

What Does God Restrain us From?

The answer is obvious: Sin. And the Scripture is clear about the human condition that we are all sinners. Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, none escapes this divine verdict (Romans 3:23). Even Abraham, who is the father of faith, sinned together with his wife in this text. They lied. And this is not the first time. In fact, this same incident in Chapter 20, also occurred in Genesis 12:10-16. And beyond the lies, is a root problem.

A Lack of Trust For God’s Protection

All the journeys Abraham was taking is at the command of God and Abraham is to trust God for protection. But it appears he always wants to take matters into his hands. And lying about their relationship is from fear that he will be killed. A total mistrust of God’s protection. Note that these lies always occur after a great promise of God has come to Abraham. Instead of trusting God for protection, he and Sarah, take matters into their own hands. We must all learn from this and learn to trust God so we don’t manipulate and compromise our way in life.

How Does God Restrain Us From Sin?

By His Self-Revelation

Look at this beautiful phrase in v.3 “But God came to Abimelech …” This plainly points us to God revealing himself to Abimelech. Throughout the Scriptures, it is God who takes the initiative, so to speak, in revealing himself to sinners. Sinners never seek God. It is always God who seeks out sinners and calls them to himself. The Bible speaks of the relationship between a Holy God and sinful humanity and what God has done to restore us to himself and relate with him. The work of reconciliation is work done by God. God has indeed revealed himself to humankind even in the created order and nobody has an excuse for denying the existence of God (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:19-20). There is God; who is a Supreme lawgiver and we are all accountable to him without excuse. In his Self-Revelation, God has shown what he loves and what he hates in his word. And this takes us to our next point. God restrains us

By His Word

In his self-revelation to Abimelech, we note that God appeared to him in a dream: (vv. 3;6). Also in the dream, we noted that God spoke. What do we make of this? Does it mean God will appear to us in a dream? No. I affirm the sufficiency of the Scriptures and I am a Cessationist. This means I hold the view that in our days, God speaks only through Scriptures. And not through dreams, visions, prophecies etc. Therefore in applying God appearing in a dream to our context, we will say God restrains us through his word; that is his laws and his commands. God’s word is a guard rail that keeps us from sin:

Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee (Psalm 119:11).

I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word. (Psalm 119:101)

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105).

As we walk in obedience to the word of God, we are kept from sin. These days many try to speak about the word of  God in nice ways and expunging from it the many threats issued to the unrepentant sinner. And we see this frightening conversation God had with Abimelech: “Behold, you are a dead man…” (v.3). “ But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours (v.7b)” Such frightening words. The point is that the word of God contains both threats to the unrepentant sinner and promises to the sinner that repents. We cannot ignore this fact.

In the Reformed world, the law of God has been categorised as having three uses. A quote from an article by R.C. Sproul of blessed memory

The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness…The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.

A second purpose for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust….The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

The third purpose of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God Himself delights in it. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.²

By His Providence

Look closely at verse 2 and verse 3. In v.2, Abimelech sent his servants to bring Sarah to him. Of course for obvious reasons. Then v. 4 tells us “ Now Abimelech had not approached her…” What has caused the delay for Abimelech to do what he wants with Sarah? We can only say that God was in control of events and has providentially caused Abimelech not to touch Sarah yet. “Therefore I did not let you touch her” (v.6c)

What is God’s Providence?

God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy. (LBCF 1689; 5.1)

Simply, God orders events to achieve his purposes. So in restraining us from sin, God may bring circumstances our way to prevent us from sinning.

By Our Conscience (v.5)

In every single one of us, whether believer or atheist, there is a moral sense of right or wrong. And even without knowing a single text of Scripture, your conscience is a guide (Romans 2:14-15).

We see in the text that Abimelech appealed to conscience. “In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this” In other words, he is telling God, I acted sincerely. I wouldn’t have taken her if I knew she was his wife. And God agreed with that: v 6a. In verse 4 also Abimelech asks whether God will destroy a righteous nation. Perhaps the then world has heard about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because this Chapter follows immediately and his reference might be to that. But question is, how did he know what righteousness is? I propose that his conscience was in view here.

Now God doesn’t only restrain us from sin, but rather, he calls us to repentance.

A Call To Repentance

The king is commanded by God to restore or return Sarah to Abraham. The word restore has an idea of turning back. And in repentance, we are called to turn back from sin. Sinners are commanded by God to repent. Jesus’ main theme was repentance: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. If you heed this call, there awaits a promise of life. If you don’t heed it, there await destruction and death for you. The wages of sin is death we are told.

Praise be to God for his restraining Grace!


1. Jonathan Edwards, “Works Of Jonathan Edwards”,

2. R.C. Sproul, The Three Fold Uses of The Law,







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